Bowling: Calm within the storm — Advice for new attorneys

Keywords New Lawyers / Opinion
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Bowling Bowling

By Christian J. Bowling

I started my career in St. Louis. On the eve of my first day of full-time work after graduation, passing the bar, etc., I vividly remember one moment driving down Interstate 64. In front of me, straight out of my windshield, was a beautiful orange and pink sunset. You know, the kind that almost makes you lose your breath, the kind that makes you wonder how this world even works. Behind me, with its beady eyes staring me down in my rearview, was one of the nastiest storms I’ve ever seen. As I was driving toward pure beauty and trying to outrun this monstrous storm, all while extremely stressed and anxious to start working full-time for the rest of my life, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “I sure hope this is symbolism for what’s to come.” Maybe, just maybe, with the stressors and storms of law school life behind me, this is the universe letting me know that life will be all sunsets from here on out.

Turns out it wasn’t. As much as I’d like to tell you otherwise, beginning your new career that you’ve devoted the last three years of your life preparing for isn’t all sunsets and splendor. It’s tough, but with the right advice and the right attitude, it can be fun. Because hey, who doesn’t like to play in the rain occasionally? If you’re a new attorney, you’re probably having similar feelings like what I had on that fateful day driving down I-64. And, if the universe isn’t throwing signs at you, here are a few pieces of advice to help you gear up for the storm.

Be yourself: This advice was given to me as a 3L by two adjunct professors who co-taught my final class at Washington University School of Law. In their closing remarks on the last day of class, they stressed that this was the single most important piece of advice they could give. At the time, I brushed it off as advice not needed, telling myself that trying to be something I’m not wasn’t I problem I had. However, this is an area I really found myself struggling in once I started. As a new attorney, it can be easy to slip into the trap of trying to fill expectations — of trying to be what you think your senior partners want you to be. I found myself being more reserved than usual, holding back my “outside the box” thoughts that I now feel are one of my strengths as an attorney. And while I admit that I still struggle with this at times, I find I do a better job learning, communicating and advocating for my clients the more “myself” I am.

Communicate: I cannot stress enough how important communication is, especially as a young attorney. Again, when first coming out of law school, it can be difficult to know what the expectations around your new firm are for you. I know I felt pressure, as a freshly educated young lad hot off the bar exam, to be able to answer and speak intelligently to each and every question or task presented to me by a senior associate or partner. However, when I was given an assignment by a partner who’d been handling commercial finance transactions for 40 years, she may as well have been speaking a foreign language to me. Not to worry though, right? You’d assume I asked her to dumb it down and explain it more clearly, so I could better understand and attack the task at hand. Nope, I smiled and nodded my head as if I understood every word she said. Big mistake. As I went back to my office to start the project, I wasted a tremendous amount of time (both mine and the client’s) spinning my wheels trying to figure out what was going on. If I’d have just taken the time to explain (communicate!) my ignorance, I can guarantee you that she would have found a way to explain the problem to me in terms I understood, which would have helped me more pointedly and quickly complete the project and move on to the next one. This is a nice transition into my next advice:

Be humble: Anyone who tells you they know everything is a liar (and a little obnoxious, in my opinion). As I mentioned above, it can feel like there’s a lot of pressure on you to know exactly what you’re talking about when asked a legal question by a friend, family member, client, partner, etc. This is especially true with in-firm communications, like the situation I discuss above. But again, no one knows everything. There is absolutely no shame in admitting to a partner that they’re talking on an area of law you are unfamiliar with (which is essentially every area of law when you start). There’s also absolutely no shame in telling a client that you’ll need to look into an issue before providing an answer. I know there have been several times in my young career when a client has called and asked a question that I attempted to answer off the cuff, only to research after the call and find out I was wrong. I’ve since learned that the best way to proceed, and not look like a bad attorney is to explain that I want to provide correct advice, so I will need some time to look into it and call them back. Never once has a client complained about me taking extra time to provide an accurate response.

Finally, as a last piece of advice and playing off the advice above, don’t be afraid to take on new assignments in areas of law unfamiliar to you. It can be easy to shy away from new practice areas for fear of taking too long, appearing unintelligent, etc. But every opportunity in a new area is just another opportunity to learn. And as new attorneys, that’s what it is all about. Good luck as you endeavor in your new career!•

Christian J. Bowling is an associate at Lewis Wagner LLP. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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